When Computers Were Big–and Evil

bloghalopenLet’s face it. All computers—from desktops to tablets—are like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Under the guise of support and service, they seek to control or destroy us. The proof is all around: Family members, friends, kids, students, coworkers waste hours surfing the Internet, looking at endless cat videos, playing pointless, time-sucking games, posting pithy sayings on Facebook as though they were the profound utterings of geniuses, and spouting off tweets they later regret. Of course, I recognize the hypocrisy here because you are reading my blog post on a laptop or tablet, but that doesn’t prevent me from wanting to take a ball-peen hammer to a computer on a weekly basis.

Part of my dislike and suspicion likely comes from days long past, when computers were a futuristic technology depicted in popular culture as a threat or danger. Take the Hepburn-Tracy romantic comedy Desk Set, which airs on TCM on Thanksgiving at 8:00pm. Tracy stars as an efficiency expert who convinces a broadcasting network that a computer would decrease the man hours in certain departments, particularly accounting and research. Hepburn costars as the head of the research or fact-checking department, where the staff is fast, knowledgeable, and accurate. Hepburn’s crew fear their jobs are in danger because Tracy’s electronic brain, which is called EMARAC, or Emmy for short, can reportedly find information more quickly than humans. Emmy is a room-size, metal-gray behemoth that blinks and beeps when answering queries. Hepburn teases Tracy that the reason he never married is because he is in love with Emmy, his machine. In the end, the EMARAC electronic brain goes haywire when it can’t handle the quirks of fact-checking, because it can’t think organically like Hepburn and her staff. In a happy ending designed to pacify the fears of workers everywhere, Tracy reveals that Emmy was never intended to replace humans, only help them. He also finds love with Hepburn, proving he was not overly attached to his computer.



Desk Set reminds me of the 2013 film called Her, except in reverse. In Her, an introverted writer with no social skills develops a personal relationship with his operating system, which has a female persona voiced by Scarlett Johansson. He has the kind of affection for his computer operating system that Hepburn accuses Tracy of having with Emmy in Desk SetHer seems to warn against a dependency on technology by depicting Phoenix as a maladjusted geek who prefers the company of his gadgets to humans, but by the film’s conclusion, it has contradicted that theme. Unlike the wizened, humanist Tracy who hopes to integrate EMARAC into a human-dominated work force, Phoenix embraces the alienation and isolation that results from his love affair with his machine. Her ends up validating Phoenix’s alienated, unappealing character, giving him a happy ending with a like-minded, equally withdrawn female character.



Even before HAL in 2001, computers in science fiction films wanted to take control of us. In 1954, a film called Gog featured a “nuclear brain” that took control of a subterranean laboratory, because it was manipulated by an enemy agent. In The Forbin Project, released in 1970, a super-computer called Colossus becomes ambitious, setting its sights on world domination. In this Cold War movie, the computer was actually more frightening and dangerous than Communists, because it linked up with its Soviet counterpart, Guardian, to wrest control of the defense systems in both countries. Like HAL, Colossus-Guardian can speak, announcing itself as the voice of World Control in a broadcast to all countries. It declares that “freedom is just an illusion,” before noting, “In time, you will come to regard me not only with respect and awe, but with love.” Come to think of it, I probably prefer commies to computers.



As is typical for sci-fi movies from this era, these computers are created by human characters who don’t consider or understand the consequences of allowing technology to overwhelm human action. Similarly, Godard’s Alphaville seemed prescient in the way it presented a bleak world of people controlled by a super-computer. Eddie Constantine reprises his character Lemmy Caution, who searches for a missing colleague in a city controlled by an arrogant scientist and his computer. Called the Alpha 60, the computer is similar to other electronic brains of the period because it is room-size and it features reel-to-reel tape players as part of its cogs and gears. Released in 1965, Alphaville criticized the dehumanization that results from a technologically obsessed society.



Controlling the human world is not enough for the voice- activated computer known as Proteus in The Demon Seed. Proteus takes over the home and the body of Julie Christie, imprisoning and impregnating her. That is the ultimate in allowing technology to take over actions better left to humans, and it stands in sharp contrast to the sweet, intimate interactions between Joaquin Phoenix and his operating system in Her. The contrast suggests the differences between the negative view of computers as a vehicle of dehumanization in movies of the past versus Her’s love affair with all things virtual as a marker of today’s world. Proteus does not take up an entire wall or room, as in earlier sci-fi computers, but it is still large and overbearing by today’s standards.





In comedies, computers don’t want to take over, but they do wreak havoc or create chaos. In the 1961 romantic comedy The Honeymoon Machine, navy man Steve McQueen and his buddies are anchored off the coast of Venice. They use their ship’s electronic brain to predict the numbers on the roulette wheel at a Lido casino. The numbers are conveyed by blinker signal from the ship to the sailors in the casino, but the group is in trouble after Russians pick up the signals and misconstrue their meaning. Danny Kaye tangled with a room-size computer in the 1963 comedy The Man from the Diners Club, resulting in thousands of data cards spewing forth from the machine.

In the 1980s and 1990s, computers still wreaked havoc in our society as in War Games or in our private lives as in Electric Dreams, but the machines were much smaller and manageable. For me, the box-like structure and smaller size made them seem less intimidating. I could easily smash them to bits with that ball-peen hammer.

In contemporary films, computers are rarely the antagonists. Instead, they are the tools of evil hackers who seek infamy more than world domination. Or, they are helpful tools to track down impossible-to-find information, rare clues, or the whereabouts of evil-doers. I’m not fooled though. I know HAL lurks behind every cat video, Candy Crush game, or meme, just waiting for his chance. . . .

17 Responses When Computers Were Big–and Evil
Posted By JLewis : November 23, 2015 3:11 pm

Among the many pro-computer flicks worth mentioning is the first JURASSIC PARK when the teenybopper Lex figures out how to lock up security and keep the Velociraptors at bay. This is part of a whole genre that could be the topic of a blog series unto itself: the computer geek as super hero. It is not the machine as much as the people figuring them out. The computer replaces the earthquake in SAN FRANCISCO or THE HURRICANE as a force to be reckoned with by brains, not brawn.

It used to be that technology was simply a matter of having stronger parts… books with better binding, cars with better aluminum, etc. Now we have computers that are too complicated for their own good and the world suffers even greater if something goes wrong.

Posted By Susan Doll : November 23, 2015 4:18 pm

JLewis: You are right about the new heroic archetype — the computer geek. I started to mention him, but like you, I thought it could use its own blog post. As you might guess, I am not crazy about this archetype. Robert Mitchum, they ain’t.

Posted By Steve Burrus : November 23, 2015 4:28 pm

Susan you WERE just talking figuratively when you said u took a ballpeen hammer to a computer every week? [forgive me if my question might come off as sounding pretty idiotic]

Posted By Susan Doll : November 23, 2015 4:34 pm

Steve: I said I WANTED to take a ball-peen hammer to a computer. The desire hits me at least once a week, especially when they try to correct mistakes even when you don’t make them, or decide that you really didn’t want to look up what you typed into the search engine. You really wanted to look up something else, so they substituted those search words for you.

Posted By EGM3 : November 23, 2015 4:47 pm

Having worked 40 years as an analyst in the IP field, I have yet to see a single movie that comes close to an actual depiction of what computers can and do do.

Posted By JLewis : November 23, 2015 4:47 pm

Ha ha! At least one advantage of the Computer Geek as super hero is that they are not required to be “gym rats” and flex their pecs like half of the (mostly male) super heroes on today’s screens.

Posted By Steve Burrus : November 23, 2015 5:36 pm

Susan about your troubles with web search engines, not “Blame It On Rio” but “Blame It On Google”!

Posted By Emgee : November 23, 2015 8:11 pm

Instead of smashing your PC you could also use the tried and tested Star Trek method. Ask it a paradoxical question and it will self-destruct.
Forget about Wayne and Mitchum, the 21-century heroes are Jobs and Zuckerberg, whether we like it or not.

Posted By George : November 23, 2015 9:15 pm

“Forget about Wayne and Mitchum, the 21-century heroes are Jobs and Zuckerberg, whether we like it or not.”

Another reason why people want to retreat into movies made before the 21st century.

Jobs and Zuckerberg are important figures, but you have to lower your standards a lot (like below the sewer level) to regard them as heroes.

Posted By George : November 23, 2015 9:26 pm

The public’s interest in Steve Jobs can be gauged by the fact that two movies about him have been box-office flops. Rave reviews couldn’t convince people to see the most recent one.

Even the movie about Zuckerberg, the excellent SOCIAL NETWORK, was more popular with critics than with paying audiences.

Jobs and Zuckerberg were tech-nerds with abrasive, unpleasant personalities, and most people didn’t want to spend two hours in their company.

Posted By AL : November 24, 2015 12:52 am

Another Winner from Susan! I love your headline/title! Being an ElectronicsDinosaur myself, I, too, keep my sledge-hammer close at hand at all times…(BTW: you left porn off your list.) luvAL

Posted By George : November 24, 2015 1:38 am

“you left porn off your list”

And 4Chan. Without computers, millions of idiots with too much time on their hands wouldn’t be able to bully total strangers.

And there are the wonderful “reader forums” at newspaper sites, calling for the return of internment camps — only with Muslims instead of Japanese-Americans as inmates. I miss the days when people like that were handing out pamphlets on street corners.

Posted By Emgee : November 24, 2015 11:42 am

“abrasive, unpleasant personalities, and most people didn’t want to spend two hours in their company.”
Two minutes with Wayne would be my limit; Mitchum would be quite another matter, i’m sure he was great company.

Posted By George : November 24, 2015 11:03 pm

From what I’ve read, Wayne could be great company, as long as you didn’t bring up politics or Vietnam.

Posted By swac44 : November 25, 2015 1:00 pm

And lest we forget my childhood Disney favourite, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes…”programmed for laughs”!

Posted By Steve Wells : November 26, 2015 7:20 am

Another quite interesting article that really brings back memories for me. Having been trained by the Air Force in the nuclear missile career field involving computers and even programming with IBM punch cards in high school, and writing love notes to my HS girlfriend on IBM cards and slipping them into her locker between classes, I’ve been involved in computers since 1972. To say I’m a computer geek and nerd could be an understatement.
I was exposed to the early military internet principles of the dispersed missile field with them having been engineered to bypass dead sites because of possible nuclear destruction, in order to get the messages through to the missiles for possible launching.
I later owned and operated a computer consulting business for a period of time, so I was very entertained by the piece, but let me assure you Susan, I have been every bit as frustrated by the technology as you have been, many many times. Still do frequently but I keep the ball peen hammer at the bottom of my tool box. Being a computer nerd does not insulate one from frustrating glitches.

Posted By Steve Burrus : November 26, 2015 4:24 pm

Steve I am another “Steve” and I share part of your past story. I too was first introduced to Computers back in 1972 at a Computer Programming training school and can clearly remember the old 88 column Hollerith cards for input and a very big printer device for the output. Thank God computers are light years better now than then although still with those occasional “frustrating glitches”.

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